When the YMCA of Avery County in Linville, NC, began planning its new facility about a year-and-a-half ago, operators looked at adding a typical kids' room with toys, a TV and the usual trimmings. However, after researching the pre-teen market and investigating health issues in the rural community (30 percent of children in Avery County are obese), the Y quickly changed its course.

“As we started to investigate issues in our community, we felt like there had to be a better way than a gym or a teen room,” says Tim Jennings, director of operations for the Y. “We started doing homework on interactive fitness and thought, ‘We may be on to something.'”

Indeed, they were. After spending more than $75,000 on active gaming equipment, programming and staff training, the Interactive Fitness Zone has caused quite the stir in the town of Linville. The new room offers a variety of exergames that use movement to perform an action in a video game.

“We've had new members and lead-ins come in since we opened in May,” Jennings says, noting that one sixth-grade girl lost 25 pounds by using the interactive games. “At least 25 to 30 percent of those who come in say they've come in because of something they've heard about the room, and they want to be a part of that.”

The Y of Avery County is one of a few fitness facilities that is heavily investing in active gaming to draw in more kids and families. However, some people in the industry say it may only be a matter of time before active gaming equipment becomes common in fitness facilities.

Active gaming has exploded in popularity in the consumer market. Nintendo's latest system, the Wii, along with the offshoot game and board, Wii Fit, have been immensely successful since their introductions. According to research from the NPD Group, a provider of consumer and retail market research for a wide range of industries, consumers have purchased almost 11 million Wii systems since it was introduced in November 2006, and more than 690,000 Wii Fit units were sold when it was released in May. The game Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) also has been incredibly popular and — through retail dance pads and games offered on almost every major video game system — has moved from arcades to people's homes.

Although the active gaming equipment in clubs is typically different than those offered in the consumer market, Gregory Florez, CEO of FitAdvisor Health Coaching Services and Fitness First Inc., says these types of games in homes can make people more comfortable with the technology and, therefore, more apt to try it in a health club. In fact, active gaming may be one of the best ways to get more people active in health clubs, he says.

“It's multiple times better than waiting for the next Oprah-endorsed product or hot product,” Florez says. “We know that gaming is huge and here to stay, so why not leverage on an already hot trend?”

Game On

Despite active gaming's growing popularity, some people in the industry have been skeptical of exergaming's health benefits. However, recent research has shown that some active games do provide health benefits. A recent study by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) found that although none of the Wii games that replicated sports, such as boxing, tennis, baseball, bowling and golf, burned as many calories as actually playing the sports, users did burn more calories than when playing a sedentary video game. Wii boxing was even considered intense enough to maintain or improve cardiorespiratory endurance, according to the ACE report. The group is currently studying the Wii Fit's fitness benefits.

Another study of 22 overweight and normal weight children, ages 11 to 17, found that DDR increased players' heart rates enough to obtain an aerobic workout and gain cardio-physiological benefits, says Debra Lieberman, program director of Health Games Research, an $8.25 million national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which supports research to enhance the quality and impact of interactive games used to improve health. Lieberman calls health clubs and active games a natural fit.

“The concept of games is accessible to people,” she says, noting that today's active gaming options are much more intuitive than they used to be. “This type of research takes away some of the fear factor of games being bad for you. It takes away the sedentary argument.”

Lisa Hansen, co-director of the XRKade Research Lab at the University of South Florida in Tampa, FL, has been researching exergaming for the last 2 1/2 years. She says that active gaming, if done correctly, can improve members' health as well as increase revenue and retention rates in clubs. Children from local schools come into the lab for P.E. classes and never once sit down, even when they have the option to take a break, she says.

Hansen recommends offering active gaming in a separate space for children so that kids can be loud and help each other with tips and strategies. She suggests having at least five or six pieces of equipment.

“For fitness markets, there's always been this gap where you have day care and then you have the older adult stuff, but you don't have anything for the teens and tweens,” Hansen says. “Kids don't go to the gym. Kids have to enjoy it.”

For adults, a few active gaming pieces on the cardio floor are sufficient, she says, although many adults enjoy playing with their children in the active gaming room.

In Hansen's experience, active gaming is best suited for bringing people together and creating a community, she says.

“I haven't seen any difference in demographics — the richest kids in the world and inner city kids all love it,” she says. “It's an activity that kids relate to. There's a game for everybody. It's not like basketball where not everyone is good at it. All ability levels love it.”

Game Play

For many club owners, active gaming has helped bring families into their facilities. After all, the family who plays together stays together.

An active gaming room has helped the North St. Paul Community Center in Minnesota attract more families, says Angie Dehart, XRKade director and health and fitness coordinator for the community center, which has more memberships now than 10 years ago. Dehart credits that growth partially to the $80,000 active gaming room. The room includes 20 active gaming pieces, including four dance-based games and six bikes, she says.

“Usually, parents will leave their kid at home because before the XRKade, all we had was basketball for them to do,” Dehart says. “Now, parents are adding their kids to their membership or kids are getting individual memberships. We're getting more daily passes, too.”

The room is primarily used by teens or pre-teens with the average age of users between 8 to 14 years old. However, many parents come in to play with their children, especially if the children are younger. Children who are younger than 7 must be accompanied by a parent to use the active gaming equipment. During the summer, the room is open for play about eight hours each weekday, and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday.

The room can hold 30 people, but Dehart limits it to 25 if possible. On average, about 10 to 15 users sign in each day to use the equipment. A coach oversees the room and helps teach active gaming participants how to play the games, she says.

“We make it very basic,” she says. “If a coach doesn't recognize a user or they haven't been there, they take them through a quick orientation. We don't want it to be too informational, or the kids feel like they're at school. The most fun is them trying to figure out how to do the games.”

Because many active gaming users at the community center are drop-ins, Dehart says formal programming hasn't been the best option for the facility. However, the room can be rented for birthday parties, and the center has held active gaming tournaments. Dehart has also been planning a two-hour active gaming camp for which members and nonmembers can register.

“We'll have to see how it catches on,” she says. “If it does well, we'll probably add a programmed class once a week.”

A mix of programming and open play has been successful at the Fort Collins Club in Colorado. The club offers a variety of exergaming choices in an active gaming space that is used mostly by children. In the cardio area, adults can use bikes that are outfitted with virtual reality biking programs. Programs in the active gaming room include challenges with coaches, Guitar Hero battles and exergaming tournaments. Most special events, including birthday parties, are offered to both members and nonmembers, thereby exposing the active gaming room to more people, says Amanda Sides, XRKade director at the club.

“It brings a wonderful sense of excitement to the club,” Sides says. “It's such a new concept, and people are fascinated by it, even if they're nervous to try it out. When we give tours to potential members, there are always giant smiles on their faces as they're shown the active gaming room.”

To further market the program, Sides sends out a monthly newsletter to the club's exergamers, and news about the active gaming rooms is included with the club's traditional marketing, she says.

Although exergaming is a relatively new form of exercise, she expects it to grow and pop up in more clubs around the country.

“The technology for it will only continue to get better and provide more realistic experiences,” Sides says. “And it's fun. Why pedal mindlessly on a stationary bike when I could instead be racing a virtual opponent or my friend on the bike next to me? It makes the time go so much more quickly, and you work harder because there is a little championship at stake.”

Game Off

Not everyone is on the active gaming bandwagon, though.

“Scientifically, the movement parameters in gaming activities are very limited,” says Brian Grasso, CEO of the International Youth Conditioning Association. “The human body is capable of so much in the way of physicality. It needs much more in the way of multi-directional/planar stimulus in order to be truly healthy and functional.”

Grasso says active gaming is not a permanent solution and cautions that kids may lose interest in time.

“For our culture to truly change and embrace a newfound physical culture, we must have more than just little doses of activity in our lives,” he says. “A lifelong love of daily physical activity is what kids need. Gaming won't do that.”

Even Hansen concedes that active gaming is only part of the solution to childhood obesity.

“There are always going to be those that are just traditional, saying it's terrible that we're letting our kids watch even more screens, and part of that may be true if they're absorbing too much screen time,” she says. “It's a complement to traditional training for all populations.”

To make active gaming work, club owners must commit resources and time for planning, training of staff and re-investing in new games. Jennings, from the Y of Avery County, says that he plans to keep up on the technology and will probably invest in new pieces as time goes by.

“You have to do more than just have the equipment,” Jennings says. “You have to be committed to the programming side. We're just dabbling, and the community is just learning about it. Nobody, once they get going on the equipment, has a problem with it. It's not hard stuff.”

Active Gaming Tips

  • Do your research Before spending a lot of money on equipment, survey your members or do a small focus group to see if members are interested in trying active gaming. It's best to survey your occasional members instead of heavy-use members since they will offer a more accurate portrayal of your overall membership.
  • Create an experience

    Having a successful active gaming program takes more than just equipment. Clubs need to hire motivated and fun coaches and set aside a separate room, if possible, for active gaming. Paint the room with fun colors and consider adding a disco ball or other party-type lighting.

  • Focus on fun

    The games aren't about being the best. They're about setting members' personal bests. Have your coaches and programming focus on member improvement instead of who scores the most points.

  • Target your marketing

    If you're marketing to kids, focus on the fun and play factor. If you're marketing to parents, emphasize the health benefits.

  • Charge more for programming

    If you're running a six-week program or holding organized classes instead of just open play, charge more for the extra organization and structure.

  • Change it up

    Keep changing your programs, get new games and hold tournaments and other special events to keep it fresh and exciting.

  • Invest in the right equipment

    Retail games and dance pads may not hold up under repeated use. Invest in equipment that is made for heavy use to save yourself replacement costs in the future. Also, choose equipment that is versatile and allows for multiple games or programming options.

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